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The Mouths of Babes

Prosecutors and the press ate up the horrible tale of abuse told by the Hill children. With so many similar cases being discredited, why was everyone so quick to believe it?

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First, lurid accusations of bizarre child sexual abuse, of children forced to eat fried rats and cockroaches by their sadistic parents. Then the equally dramatic recantations of the children themselves, who now insist the abuse did not occur.

It was not surprising that the case against Barbara and Gerald Hill fell apart--after all, many similar cases involving accusations of bizarre abuse have crumbled in recent years. But the case is significant in what it reveals about the mind-set of today's child abuse "experts"--and about those in the media who cover the cases such experts claim to unearth.

Despite a growing consensus that the "ritual abuse" scare of the 1980s and 1990s reflected a kind of collective delusion, a hysteria resembling nothing so much as the legendary trials in Salem, Massachusetts, reporters covering the Hill case treated the bizarre claims of abuse uncritically; indeed, they were far more bewildered by the recantations than by the original charges.

The media coverage of the case--particularly the coverage of the Chicago Tribune--shows that many of the assumptions that led to the original abuse hysteria linger on in the minds of many in the media. The "ruling mantra" of those caught up in the scare, as Paul-Noel Chretien noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last fall, "is that children do not lie about abuse--except when they deny it. ...Once a tale of atrocities emerges, the investigators' motto is 'believe the children.'...Child witnesses have told of robots with blinking lights, magic wands and animal mutilations--exactly the kind of fantasy stories unharmed children will tell after sufficient bullying and leading questions." Only when they deny abuse are they disbelieved--as has been the case with the Hill children.

By now, one would think, reporters would look upon charges of extreme abuse with an almost instinctive skepticism. But no: in the first Tribune account of the allegations, dramatically announced with a banner headline on the front page, one could read in chilling detail about the horrific crimes said to have been committed by the south-side couple charged with 1,238 counts of "hellish" abuse against their children. "Four children were beaten," the Tribune declared on February 6, summarizing the charges, "sexually assaulted, injected with drugs and fed rats and roaches, over and over again." There was barely a hint of skepticism in the article.

The next day, though, the case took a strange turn indeed when three of the four children, whose words were the only evidence in the case against their parents, recanted their story to Tribune reporters. They alleged that these words had been put in their mouths by others--perhaps family members, perhaps investigators intent on finding sexual abuse where there was none. Amid questions of investigative incompetence and prosecutorial misconduct the suspects eventually were released on signature bonds, and prosecutors admitted that they might have to drop charges altogether.

The Tribune responded to their release with a February 23 editorial titled "The Incredible Shrinking Abuse Case." It commented with scorn on the "headline grab[bing]" case, and particularly on State's Attorney Jack O'Malley's questionable judgment and "cowboy" tactics.

These were justifiable complaints. But what the editorial did not acknowledge was that its own coverage of the case had been part of the problem--and that many of the headlines grabbed were in the pages of the Tribune itself. (The Sun-Times, by contrast, devoted minimal attention to the case.) The Tribune deserves credit for breaking the story of the recantations. But the rest of its coverage of the case was hardly so creditable.

Before looking in detail at the media coverage of this case, it is perhaps helpful to recall the milieu out of which the allegations of abuse have emerged. Over the last dozen years or so, charges of bizarre or ritual sexual abuse have torn apart dozens of communities across the United States, and more than a hundred people have landed in jail, put there by the testimony of children--and their self-designated interpreters.

In many cases, those jailed have been accused not simply of abuse but of something called satanic ritual abuse (SRA). In such cases, bizarre allegations became almost routine: children were said to have been abused by dozens of perpetrators, and to have been forced to engage in any number of improbable activities, including "baby barbecues," cannibalism, and ritual murders on such a scale that were they all true even the census department would have noticed the dip in population.

Many SRA proponents claim that up to 50,000 children are ritually murdered by cults every year--i.e., twice the number of people murdered in the more conventional manner, by criminals, relatives, enraged postal workers, and famous sports figures. And some estimates of the satanic holocaust are even higher. According to the Reverend Dr. Gary Lee, a self-proclaimed ritual abuse expert in Illinois, some five to eight million--yes, million--Americans are involved in satanic abuse, with each satanic group committing anywhere from 5 to 20 murders a year.

Yet despite a decade of research, no one has ever been able to uncover any physical evidence to prove these elaborate allegations. Nothing. A 1994 survey, conducted by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and costing taxpayers some $750,000 over five years, examined over 12,000 accusations of ritual abuse and found no evidence to back up any of them.

The lack of evidence has led many SRA "believers" to change their minds. During the 1980s, FBI investigator Kenneth Lanning (the bureau's point man on SRA cases) spoke regularly on the supposed dangers of ritual abuse. In 1992, after an extensive study of SRA cases nationwide, Lanning changed his tune. In an influential report, Lanning noted that there had been no corroboration for any of the charges: no bodies, no blood, no ritual chambers, not even evidence of a cover-up.

"In none of the...child sex ring cases of which I am aware have bodies of the murder victims been found--in spite of major excavations where the abuse victims claim the bodies were located," Lanning wrote. "Not only are no bodies found, but also, more importantly, there is no physical evidence that a murder took place. Many of those not in law enforcement do not understand that, while it is possible to get rid of a body, it is even more difficult to get rid of the physical evidence that a murder took place, especially a human sacrifice involving sex, blood and mutilation."

And while there is no evidence whatsoever of a vast satanist underground, there is ample evidence of unscrupulous (or simply overzealous) therapists and law-enforcement officials coaxing or coercing or otherwise extracting "memories" from bewildered children and adults alike of things that simply could not have happened.

The ritual abuse scare grew out of a strange confluence of fundamentalist Christianity and a kind of feminism allergic to sexuality in almost all forms. They merged into a faddish form of "therapy" designed to convince troubled patients that all their problems are the result of elaborate histories of abuse (and "ritual abuse") that they have simply managed to forget.

A new breed of therapists, some with minimal training, began almost to specialize in diagnoses of abuse and ritual abuse. Patients may come to such therapists with real complaints--debilitating feelings of depression, recurrent problems with relationships--only to be convinced that their suffering stems from almost unbelievable histories of abuse at the hands (usually) of their father (and possibly a whole gang of other relatives and neighbors as well), and that real "healing" can come only from dredging up scores of such memories, each more horrific than the last. A significant number of those who "recover" such dubious memories--more than one in ten--end up believing that (unbeknownst to them and everyone around them) they grew up secretly involved in elaborate and often murderous satanic rituals.

Most psychodynamically trained therapists recognize that the human psyche is a complex thing, and that memories can be unreliable. These therapists are aware of the dangers of "forcing" a diagnosis on a patient, and instead try to provide a therapeutic atmosphere in which patients can work through and get beyond their dysfunctional habits. The point is to free oneself of the past, not to lose oneself in it.

The ritual abuse therapists, by contrast, tend to encourage a kind of obsessive fixation on the past, and on the horrific abuse their patients are said to have endured. In many cases, patients have been told early on in the "treatment" that it is likely their problems stem from abuse, whether or not they remember or even suspect such a thing. According to The Courage to Heal, a book that became almost a bible among SRA believers, if you can't remember abuse "but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did." Those who "think" they may have been abused and who show "symptoms" of such abuse as adults are told they were in fact abused--even if they can't remember how or when or even by whom.

In the child care cases, there is a slight variation on the theme: parents concerned about seemingly odd behaviors among their young children become convinced--in part because of the popularity of the abuse diagnosis and books like The Courage to Heal--that the children are suffering from "abuse." Since parents know they aren't abusers, suspicion falls on day care workers--and (once the "experts" arrive on the scene) charges of abuse can quickly balloon into stories of ritual abuse and massive satanic conspiracies. In these cases, children have been coaxed, if not coerced, into making accusations by therapists subjecting them to months of virtual interrogation; eventually the children "remember" not only abuse but, in some cases, robots and excursions into outer space.

Many of the SRA believers describe themselves as defenders of women, but it is hard to see how demonizing child care--in this case quite literally--could possibly serve the cause of feminism. According to the Ritual Abuse Task Force of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women, "ritual abuse in...an institutional setting is not incidental to its operation, but it is in fact intrinsic to it, the very reason for its existence." Day care centers, in other words, may well be little more than covers for satanic abusers. It is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that such beliefs have less to do with real abuse than with the guilt many parents, particularly mothers, feel about putting children in day care.

Chicago has not been immune to the scare. The two "ritual abuse" cases that hit the Chicago area during the ritual abuse scare--that of Rogers Park janitor Deloartic Parks and the more recent prosecution of day care owner Sandra Fabiano--both involved day care workers. And both cases fell apart over questions about investigative techniques and a lack of evidence.

The SRA fever seems at last to be abating. Given the lack of convincing physical evidence for such charges and the considerable evidence of manipulation (of children and juries) by self-proclaimed experts trained by other self-proclaimed experts to sniff out ritual abuse in the most innocent of settings, ritual abuse charges increasingly lack credibility. Books such as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker's Satan's Silence have carefully and persuasively deconstructed the allegations and the experts promoting them. And the cases have started to fall apart as well, with many of the original convictions being overturned on appeal--though dozens of defendants, from Washington State to Massachusetts, remain in jail.

Slowly, very slowly, some of the damage caused by the scare is being undone. The term "satanic ritual abuse" has been largely replaced in the literature by a more "objective" sounding term conveniently sharing the same initials: "sadistic ritual abuse."

But the cases have not vanished entirely. Last December, a jury in Wenatchee, Washington, acquitted pastor Robert Roberson and his wife on charges of leading ritual abuse orgies in their own church--accusations that arose, incidentally, after the two began questioning a police department that had put a number of their own parishioners in jail, some of them mentally handicapped indigents incriminated by "confessions" that they now say were coerced from them. The bulk of the Wenatchee defendants remain in jail today.

Despite the persuasive debunking of the most outrageous abuse allegations in recent years, reporters covering the Hill case were all too ready to believe the most incredible charges. In its February 23 editorial, the Tribune remarked acidly on the "grotesque stories--related in a press release from...O'Malley--of children being forced to eat cockroaches and rats."

Yet the Tribune itself, in its first story on the case, had reported these "grotesque stories" without thinking to question their validity. Indeed, it wasn't until the second day of news coverage that careful readers could learn that the most outrageous charges were not even included in the pumped-up 1,200-count indictment, perhaps because the evidence for them was so plainly lacking, and that the bruises and needle marks the police described were nowhere noted in the medical reports on the case.

More tellingly, no one in the news media was any more prepared than the office of Jack O'Malley to deal with the sudden recantations. The investigators, for their part, had a simple answer: they assumed the recantations were themselves a hoax. "You may be able to mislead one or two persons. But not eight to ten professionals," Dr. Bruce Peters of Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center told the Tribune. "These procedures don't lie." The unspoken assumption behind Peters's statement was that if the procedures aren't lying the children must be.

Many in the news media simply assumed the same, continuing to report on the story as a case of simple "horror." Fox TV illustrated its coverage of the story with a graphic depicting a "house of horror." A Sun-Times column by Leslie Baldacci angrily denounced the Tribune reporters who had broken the story of the recantation, questioning the propriety of reporters interviewing "child sex abuse victims." It was a telling choice of words, and it revealed a good deal about Baldacci's opinion of the case: after all, in that interview the children had just declared that they weren't "child sex abuse victims" at all.

For its part the Tribune, after breaking the story of the recantations, did its best to minimize their import. In other Tribune stories expert after expert--undoubtedly knowing no more about the specifics of the case than the typical reader of the Tribune--proclaimed that it was common for kids in such cases to recant, even if the allegations were true.

But the experts the Tribune and other media outlets turned to in order to explain the recantations were--in some cases quite literally--ritual abuse true believers whose controversial investigations and expert testimony had stoked the fires of the ritual abuse scare in the first place. In many cases, these experts have been personally involved in highly controversial ritual abuse cases that have resulted in the conviction of defendants whom many outside observers believe to be innocent. These are the last people one would expect to give a fair hearing to any kind of recantation.

"It makes it hard to assess the kids' words because we know that they recant commonly when abuse is known to have occurred," Theresa Reid, executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), told the Associated Press, repeating the dogma held by many of the ritual abuse experts--and one that has nowhere been conclusively proved. "Recantation is commonplace to begin with and especially when your mom and dad have ended up in the clink,'' added Kathleen Coulborn Faller, a University of Michigan professor and a member of APSAC's executive committee.

The Tribune's Ellen Warren repeated the assertion again and again. "It is extremely common for children to say they have been sexually abused and then change their stories, the experts said," she wrote near the beginning of one story. Several paragraphs down, she varied the wording slightly: "Experts said that recantation is common in child sex abuse cases--both those that turn out to be true and those where the charges are shown to be false."

Eventually, the "fact" attained the level of a truism: it was no longer a belief now, but truth. But what kind of truth was it?

The only recantation study cited in the Tribune, for example, suggested that 22 percent of children in sexual abuse cases recanted their claims, and that in 90 percent of these cases the recanters later acknowledged that abuse had taken place.

But other studies suggest that recantation, far from being common, is in fact quite rare. One widely cited study of several hundred abuse cases in Denver, Colorado, found a recantation rate of 8 percent. And a study of several hundred cases in El Paso, Texas, found an even lower rate of recantation: only 3 percent.

Furthermore, the study cited by the Tribune was conducted in part by Utah psychologist Barbara Snow--whose own admittedly "biased" involvement in unearthing alleged ritual abuse sex rings has occasioned more than a little controversy. Snow admits that in at least one case she investigated, "I didn't believe any of those kids when they told me it didn't happen."

Indeed, there is evidence that suggests that Snow's beliefs have had more of an effect on the final outcome of her investigations than the memories of the children she questions. Because the details of several alleged ritual abuse cases she had investigated were so suspiciously similar, Utah police deliberately fed her false information to see if her suggestive interviewing techniques were influencing the children's allegations. Soon enough this information appeared in the answers of the children she interviewed.

Faller, another of the Tribune's "experts," is a member of the advisory board of the organization Believe the Children, which treats even the smallest signs of skepticism on the question of alleged satanic abuse as evidence of a "backlash."

The lead article in the winter 1995 issue of the Believe the Children newsletter, for example, details a list of "danger signs in day care" suggesting widespread ritual abuse. Many of the alleged symptoms are simply examples of normal childhood behavior: hyperactivity, mood swings, a short attention span, a tendency to break toys, and a fear of doctors.

But the danger signs get stranger. "Notice the artwork posted in the school," Believe the Children executive director Beth Vargo warns ominously. "Art projects should reflect the children's level of ability and the current season. If all the artwork looks identical, as if a teacher rather than children created it, consider it an indicator that abuse may be occurring at the center. Children who have been abused in day care settings have reported that they did not often draw or color; their art projects were made by an adult to make it appear as though the children were engaged in normal school activities. If snowflakes are still on the bulletin board in June, it may mean that no artwork has been produced in many months."

Faller's name appears regularly in the Believe the Children newsletter--as an expert and as a contributor--and a tape of one of her talks is available for sale from the group: 30 minutes of Faller's wisdom, including several minutes determining if the microphone is working properly. (Faller laughingly attributes some of the microphone troubles to a "ritual conspiracy.") In her writings and lectures, Faller continues to support the most extreme allegations of abuse, and ridicules (without really refuting) those who suggest that many of the most lurid tales have emerged from "interviewing" sessions featuring leading questions and intense psychological manipulation.

In the coverage of the Hill case, the one explanation of events that was not given any credence was that of the children themselves, who told a straightforward and all-too-credible story of relentless and leading "questioning" at the hands of prosecutors and other "experts" seemingly determined to draw from them stories of abuse.

According to the Tribune story that broke the story of the recantations, "the girls said their brother's fiancee badgered them into reporting that they were abused, and they stuck by their story with social workers, detectives and prosecutors so they wouldn't get into trouble." One of the girls explained that "she kept asking and asking and asking and finally you said yes so it would all be over." Another of the girls concurred, noting that "I just said yes because if I said no, then they'd get mad."

Though no outsider--not me, not the experts quoted in the Tribune, nor even the investigators in the case--can claim to know for sure what really happened in the Hill home, this explanation deserves a serious hearing.

After all, in previous cases involving charges of bizarre abuse, many of the accusations clearly have been artifacts of a style of interviewing closer to interrogation than therapeutic exploration. In many such interviews, Nathan and Snedeker note, "those who purport to be helping victims speak are actually the ones doing all the talking....From start to finish, it is adults who speak. In page after page of transcripts, there is not one spontaneous disclosure of abuse."

Indeed, the interviewers steadfastly refuse to believe everything the children tell them--until they begin to provide them with details of abuse. Consider this excerpt from an interview with a five-year old child in the Wee Care abuse case in New Jersey:

Interviewer: "Did she put the fork in your butt? Yes or no?"

Child: "I don't know. I forgot."

Interviewer: "Oh, come on. If you just answer that you can go."

Child: "I hate you."

Interviewer: "No you don't."

Child: "Yes I do."

Interviewer: "You love me, I can tell. Is that all she did to you? What did she do to your hiney?"

Second Adult: "What did she do to your hiney? Then you can go."

Child: "I forget."

Second Adult: "Tell me what Kelly did to your hiney and then you can go. If you tell me what she did to your hiney, we'll let you go."

Child: "No."

Interviewer: "Please."

Child: "OK, OK, OK."

Interviewer: "Tell me now....What did Kelly do to your hiney?"

Child: "I'll try to remember."

Interviewer: "What did she put in your hiney?"

Child: "The fork."

Stung by embarrassing revelations of investigations like these, the experts now, loudly and publicly, proclaim their support for "careful" techniques. No one, of course, suggests that leading questions are proper. Yet ritual abuse experts continue to believe in the "truths" unearthed by such suspect methods, and in the guilty verdicts that similar interviews have helped to bring about.

Despite their oft-proclaimed interest in "child-sensitive" interviewing techniques, many of the experts are so ready to believe the worst that they can turn almost anything into a sign of abuse: if a snowflake on a bulletin board can become an indicator of satanism, almost anything can.

Indeed, realizing that records of obviously leading questions are likely to suggest the possibility of invented accusations to open-minded jurors, many abuse "experts" advise investigators to carefully avoid videotaping their interview sessions. The investigations themselves may not have changed much--since none of the details of the Hill investigation are public yet, we can't tell--but the PR techniques of the investigators clearly have.

Even after some in the press raised questions about the discrepancies in the Hill case, they still found it hard to imagine that the claims of abuse might have been manufactured by overzealous investigators--though they did hold out the possibility that the children were, as Warren in the Tribune put it, "just making it up." Even the Sun-Times, after detailing a number of the case's questionable elements in a generally perceptive editorial, was driven to ask if the allegations were "a cruel hoax engineered by angry and vengeful children."

Perhaps. But it seems much more likely that the children caved in under intense pressure. "The influence of social pressure on what children say is very important," says Jim Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and the coauthor of the El Paso study mentioned above. "An abused child can be pressured into remaining silent, and a nonabused child be pressured into making false allegations. In this case, it's impossible to know where the truth lies without knowing more about the children's statements and the exact circumstances under which they made them. If the allegations were made in response to improper questioning, that should be clear from the tapes of the interviews. If there aren't tapes, that's a real problem. Trying to diagnose sexual abuse without a tape of the interview is like trying to diagnose lung cancer without an X ray."

The case seems likely, now, to simply fade away. But it serves as a sobering reminder of what can happen when investigators, prosecutors, child abuse experts, and reporters are all too ready to "believe the children" when abuses are alleged--and unwilling to listen when children tell them what they don't want to hear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Audrey Niffenegger.

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